Backyard Movie how-to

07.07.11

mmmm. Summer evenings are my favorite. I am always looking for a good excuse to be outside when the sun goes down—s’mores, stargazing, or of course, the quintessential backyard movie night.

As the wife of a film fanatic and former Circuit City salesman (I used to visit Brent at work in college and admire him in his pinkish-maroon Circuit City shirt), I have been required come to appreciate a great backyard set up. So here, with the combined efforts of my techie husband and untechie self, are a few of the tips we’ve learned.
1. Find a good spot. If you have a couple spots to choose between, try them out. Issues you might not have thought about, like how far from the screen you’ll be sitting or street lights shining right by the screen may make one spot a top pick once you’ve tried it.

2. Your projector also needs a good spot. The higher you can mount the projector the better. Right now we just place ours on a table in the lawn. This works but no one can sit right in front of the screen. Getting the projector installed at the height of the screen is ideal, if you can swing it.

3. Set up the screen. I’ll let Brent take it away with 4 cheap DIY options we’ve tried or thought about trying:

Hi everyone, this is AmberLee’s techie husband, Brent. Here’s the thing about the screen. Part of the image quality is the type of screen you use. Being cheap, I have tried all kinds of DIY options over the last couple years that have given us pretty decent image quality:

The first screen that I made used pine wood as a frame with curtain backing that I purchased from JoAnne’s. I then added some backing and grommets to the fabric and stretched it onto the frame. This gave a nice lightweight screen that I could then remove when we were done, and fold up into a bag, which helped keep it clean. With my limited sewing ability, I was never able to make this strong enough (or baby proof), but if someone really knew what they were doing they could do a good job at creating something that can take the stress of the stretched fabric. The only limitation here is the size of the fabric. The last thing you want is a seam in your screen and so you are limited to about a 5′ high screen.

The second screen I used on the same frame. I went to Home Depot and picked up a panel of vinyl that is made for commercial bathrooms. I found one that had a clean smooth back. I then used heavy duty velcro to velcro it onto the frame. It made a great screen. It is a little more of a challenge to store but didn’t cost more than $40 all together. This screen is limited to about 4′ tall.

The third option we’ve tried is a white wall, actually an off-white wall. We’ve thought about painting it with reflective paint to add some reflectivity. This helps you start your movies sooner, like you could do with a more expensive projector. Of course, this may not be for everyone who wants a permanent wall dedicated to movie viewing.

A forth option is one roll of 53″ white seamless paper. This is the heavy roll paper that photographers use as backdrops for product photography, and it is available in camera supply stores. This is not great outdoors but could be an inexpensive option indoors.

UPDATE: We also like Leanne‘s idea of using a white shower curtain with a curtain rod taped to the bottom. Affordable, flat, and easy to roll up and keep clean. Thanks, Leanne!

4. Get the system. Ya, this is clearly Brent’s area of expertise:

PROJECTOR. When choosing a projector, remember this. The bigger the screen, the better the resolution you need to be able to see the image. A High Definition Projector is your best bet. Look for something that has an HDMI input and you should be in good shape. Beyond that, as you increase the price of the projector what you generally find is the brightness level of the projector increases. That will allow you to start your movies earlier in the evening, which may or may not be worth the extra money to you.

AUDIO. This is where most people skimp. But this is the part that makes the most difference. It doesn’t do you much good to create a giant image and then force your guests to guess what the people are saying. That said, you don’t need to spend a lot of money to make a great sound system. This is not a place where you need surround sound or high quality speakers, volume is more important than clarity. I live in a place where no one cares if I am blasting my system at 11pm while watching The Bourne Identity (or Pride and Prejudice) but even if you have neighbors that don’t appreciate the volume, you still need something that can project the sound to your guests. Without walls to reflect the sound you typically need more than you would indoors.

I would suggest that you get a stereo receiver or old sound system that is around. People want surround sound in their homes so this is something you can pick up cheap on craigslist. You then want to find some speakers. Again, these do not need to be high quality speakers that you would use in your home theater in your home. I looked on craigslist for DJ speakers and went with some of the cheapest I could find.

BLURAY. If you can show your movies in bluray, do it. As your screen gets bigger the image quality is stretched. DVD’s produce about 500 lines of resolution, bluray gives you 1080 lines of resolution. That is twice as much picture that you are going to stretch. If you can’t get your copy of Anne of Green Gables on Bluray (they don’t make it, I have looked for AmberLee’s sake), at least pull out your bluray player to project the DVD. Most Bluray players try to convert the image and double the lines that are produced. You will still see a difference between that and Bluray, but it will be much better than just playing the disc on a laptop or old DVD player.

5. Think about seating and lighting. The perfect seating for us has been a blanket for the kids in the front, and folding chairs for the grown ups in the back. But you can get creative (think hay bales). You’ll also want to think about having a little ambient lighting so guests can find their way to the bathroom or the snack table without tripping over things or other people. A string of lights at the snack table can be just enough.

6. Two words. Bug spray. Or citronella. Or incense. Or if the night is cool enough, piles of blankets are a nice alternative.

7. A good flick. Okay, what are your favorites for a get together? (Ever since seeing this movie map I’ve been wanting to host a 50-day film fest.) In the pic we’re watching one of our faves, Big Fish.

8. Good food. I adore a great. gourmet. popcorn. recipe. I also love prepping some cuisine from the movie we’ll be showing, if I have the time. But one of my all-time favorites is something our good friends showed us, and it is great for an impromptu movie night. Have everyone bring a bag of candy or snacks, hand out bowls or paper bags, and let everyone create their own custom movie mix. Simple. Perfect.

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Susan R. July 7, 2011 at 8:37 am

We did this exact same thing for my son’s 12th birthday party last year and it was a huge hit. We timed it right because Karate Kid (The new version) had just come out on DVD. My back yard was full of 12 year old boys and they had a blast.
We had each boy bring a lawn chair and a blanket in case it got cold, then we served all the normal good movie junk food.

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AmberLee July 7, 2011 at 10:50 am

Susan,
Karate Kid is the perfect summer flick! I hadn’t thought of that one. It’s doing on my list. You are a good mama.

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Janet July 7, 2011 at 8:39 am

I’ve been wanting to host an outdoor movie night forever. We have the perfect courtyard, I just need to get organized!

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leanne July 7, 2011 at 12:12 pm

We bought a vinyl white shower curtain to use as a screen. We hang it on our patio with little cup hooks and the curtain grommets, then I taped a curtain rod to the bottom to weight it down. When we’re done with the movie, I just roll it all up onto the curtain rod and stick it in a closet. It works really well!

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AmberLee July 7, 2011 at 1:28 pm

Leanne, I love this idea! It is so do-able, and storeable, which is maybe even more important.

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Suzie July 7, 2011 at 2:03 pm

I love all the variations you have gone through and the thoroughness of your explanations! We’re also outdoor movie enthusiasts, and I wanted to add that you need not be afraid of seams in the screen–they are really barely noticeable when the movie is projected.

Our screen can be found here: http://unschoolplus.blogspot.com/2010/07/outdoor-movies.html

but I made a smaller, simpler one this year which could be hung from inside or out, giving us the option of showing movies in the barn or garage in winter. We keep the screen and frame in a large plastic storage container when not in use.

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Heather Louise July 7, 2011 at 2:28 pm

My husband loves movies, but we don’t get to the theater very often. He would love this, thank you for the idea.

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AmberLee July 7, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Heather! We’re the same, we almost never get to the theatre anymore. It really is a nice alternative and you still get that fun aura. We picked up our projector for a great deal on craigslist, and it was really worthwhile.

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Krissy July 7, 2011 at 2:28 pm

You make me wish I wasn’t renting. I would love to do something like this in my backyard.

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AmberLee July 7, 2011 at 8:00 pm

Krissy, I totally know the feeling. We were renting and in apartments for what seemed like forever! Having a backyard was so exciting, but then again, we suddenly found ourselves doing yard work. What’s up with that?

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Botherabbit July 7, 2011 at 9:55 pm

Hi, Great post, for our screen we use a large roller blind. We leave the brackets attached to the house and then just get out the roller blind, fix it to the brackets and roll it down when we want to watch a movie.

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Jenna July 10, 2011 at 7:12 pm

My uncle was in the theater business all of his life. He used to travel to small towns and show the flicks on the sides of buildings all the way up to the 70s. In his older years he ordered huge piece of Styrofoam from a Styrofoam company and painted it with drive in movie theater paint. He said that he could have probably used a nice flat paint for the job. He then mounted just the foam board to his living room wall and had operational theater curtains. He charged $1.00 per movie because he figured that this was the actual cost of the light bulb to replace it out per viewings.. on his overhead. I hope I added to your list of “good” things to use for a screen.

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AmberLee July 11, 2011 at 9:14 pm

ooh, Jenna! what a great story! and I love that it’s a totally pro tip, from a man who knew his movie screens. so cool! thank you!!

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Rae July 12, 2011 at 10:01 pm

my husband worked up a screen this summer of PVC pipe and a dropcloth that we’re loving- we’ve also done larger-than life MarioKart out there. Yours is lovely!

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terri August 8, 2011 at 2:17 pm

Ok first I am absolutely amazed that you guys came up with such a cheap diy option! Awesome. Second, I am excited to hear your husband shopped at Joanne’s. My husband would have an anxiety attack walking into a craft store! ha ha Congrats you two on building such a wonderful family project together. Terri

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Shelly September 12, 2011 at 12:17 pm

We use a white bed sheet for our screen. I have attatched some small rope (by sewing) to the corners and then tie it (in between) to our porch posts. Works great! My kids love to have movie parties outdoors and have even played sing star on the playstation & the girls love to dance with the wii or play mario kart too. Makes a great hangout for the teens

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katie June 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm

I love the idea of having a moiei night outside especially when it comes to a 15 year old out door sleep over, I have a screen, I live in rhode island, if I were to rent a projector..does it play DVDs ? How would I ask for something like this at a rental place?

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Kelly June 21, 2012 at 5:37 am

I just hosted a group of teachers from my school for a movie and pizza night. Each person brought a pizza topping and a blanket. I provided the pizza crusts. We watched Mystic Pizza and grilled pizza. It was the perfect kick off to summer!

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Marla June 24, 2012 at 4:18 pm

We did this for our son’s 6th birthday. We showed it at the end of October on the side of our house. Our backyard has an easy grade up, so it was like perfect stadium seating! “How to Train Your Dragon” was the flick and every mom said they thought it was the best birthday party ever! We had a “concession stand” set up with water bottles and flavor packets, regular and homemade caramel corn, and candy candy candy!!! We had borrowed the projector- but I sure wish we had our own- I’d love to do it again! Great post!!!

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James GreyWolf June 24, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Having a drive-in theatre in your back yard. 8-) Great idea.

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Cheryl June 25, 2012 at 3:18 pm

I may try this with a canvas drop cloth. Lowes has 12×18 for around $32.

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tina patterson July 1, 2012 at 10:54 am

Made one 4 years ago by asking at the local outdoor billboard company for a used vinyl billboard. They gave it to me for free. We built a PVC frame that fits into PVC pipes in the ground. Cut the billboard- white on back- printed on front- to size, reversed it and used duct tape and PVC glue to make the screen. It rolls/folds up for storage and the PVC goes with it in the shed for the cold months. Screen size is about 13′ x 6′. AWESOME for a large yard. The billboard was about 3x the needed size so plenty for another screen or two! PVC can be used for other things when not in use as a movie screen.

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Jim August 2, 2012 at 8:06 am

My daughter wants to have a Dive-in-Movie at our pool (The Hunger Games). We have a huge float that seats 8 to 10 people. I am going to try to project on the wall of the pool house. The challenge will be to mount the projector over the pool and keep it safe. Any ideas?

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Beth August 20, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Whats the best Projector for the money ??? I would love to do this

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Jill b February 5, 2013 at 10:46 am

eBay. Used. Optoma hd20 is great! You can get a 720p for less and it will still be
Terrific. Honestly our first shows were on a used Craigslist HP business projector.
No hd at all but still a good picture and it got HUGE!
Used computer speakers. Roll of blackout cloth from Joanne’s.
at a friends house we sat roll in roof gutter and rolled it down. Ha
But it worked great!!

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